US-Saudi arms deal aimed at Iran, Yemen troubles
Analysts say US arms deal gives Saudis advantage over all regional states except Israel.
By Paul Handley - RIYADH
Saudi Arabia's planned massive arms deal with the United States is aimed at establishing air superiority over rival Iran while also addressing weaknesses bared in border fighting with Yemeni rebels, experts said on Tuesday.
Under the potential 60-billion-dollar (47-billion-euro), 10-year deal, the Saudis would be authorised to buy 84 new F-15 fighters and upgrade 70 more, as well as buy 178 attack helicopters and various missiles.
That should give the oil giant a clear advantage over Iran and any other of its neighbours save Israel, experts said.
The deal, revealed by US defense officials on Monday, would represent a sweeping upgrade of Saudi Arabia's military that could also see an additional 24-27 billion dollars spent on naval vessels and missile defence systems, a Saudi defence expert said.
"It's so big because we need an entire modernisation of our armed forces," he said.
The package, which much be approved by the US Congress, would also include 70 Apache, 72 Black Hawk and 36 Little Bird helicopters; HARM anti-radar missiles, precision-guided JDAM bombs, Hellfire missiles and fighter pilot helmets that have high-tech displays.
The goal is to establish clearly Riyadh's military superiority over its neighbours, including its current Arab allies, defence analysts said.
"We need to guarantee our security and the security of our allies," said the Saudi expert.
The Saudis are most worried about Iran's push to build missiles with greater precision and longer range, and possibly a nuclear weapons capability.
The United States, Israel and many Western countries suspect Iran is using its civilian nuclear programme as a cover to develop weapons, which is denied by Tehran.
The existing Saudi fleet of 70 F-15s, to be updated under the new contract, 80 European-built Tornados, and 72 Typhoon Eurofighters currently being delivered, already gives the Saudis air superiority, according to Theodore Karasik of the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.
"Iran's air force is not very capable. I think either the Saudis or the UAE (United Arab Emirates) could take them out quickly," he said.
Any conflict with Iran could endanger the Saudis' principal oil production facilities, and the arms package would increase defence and counter-attack capabilities.
"If Israel is not involved, Saudi Arabia will have to take care of its own air space against the Iranian threat," said Karasik.
He said the package is also a response to failures in Saudi Arabia's three-month assault on Shiite rebels along the Yemeni border in late 2009 and early 2010.
The better-armed Saudi forces lost at least 109 men in guerrilla-type fighting in the craggy border mountains, and the conflict went on many weeks longer than they expected.
"The Saudi forces were not prepared for this type of warfare. They suffered much in the same way the Soviets did in Afghanistan," Karasik said.
The strike helicopters, the JDAM smart bombs, and night warfare technology possibly in the package would boost Saudi capabilities in this kind of scenario, according to Karasik.
The Saudis had also wanted to buy missile-carrying drones like the Predator used by US forces in Afghanistan, but were unlikely to get them, according to another analyst who requested anonymity.
The roots of the massive deal go back to the administration of US president George W. Bush, who laid the ground in 2007 for large defence sales to America's Gulf allies in the face of Iran's perceived threat, hoping to deepen security ties.
"This (deal) locks us in to 10 to 15 years of close defense cooperation" with Washington, the Saudi expert said.
Analysts saw the deal as posing little threat to Israel, and, in the way it deepens US-Saudi ties, actually benefitting the Jewish state.
Israeli leaders as a matter of habit will criticise the deal, said Yiftah Shapir, a military expert at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.
"But in this case it's not a real threat to Israel. We really have to see it as directed against Iran. In this case, Israel and Saudi Arabia are on the same side. They are not used to it," he said.
One crucial part of the package, an advanced radar configuration for the new F-15s, has not been decided yet, according to the Saudi expert.
The Pentagon did not give any details on this. However, Aviation Week and Space Technology reported in August that the Saudis are seeking a Raytheon-made AESA (active electronically scanned array) digital radar that allows pilots to spot small, moving objects, like fighters, 150 nautical miles (278 kilometres) away.
The current standard radars only pick up large objects like airliners at that distance, Aviation Week and Space Technology said.